Association for Social Research and Action
Founded in 1999, the Association for Research and Social Action Nomadesc has been defending human rights in the southwestern part of Colombia for more than twenty years. It advises and accompanies social, union, women’s, indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant organizations. As a result of her work in this area, its president, Berenice Celeita, was the victim of persecution by State agents in operations with the alleged purpose of assassinating her. In this emblematic case of the Colombian armed conflict, some of the State officials involved in her persecution were sanctioned by the Colombian justice system in 2018.
“On behalf of Nomadesc and the communities we accompany, we want to give infinite thanks to Peace Brigades for being here, to the young men and women, and to all the older people who have passed through Peace Brigades International. I really want to say to you: thanks for having arrived in Colombia and for having left your mark, tracing the outlines of a different and better Colombia.”
Berenice Celeita, Nomadesc president de Nomadesc
Twenty years defending Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
The Nomadesc Association for Research and Social Action was founded in 1999, “an extremely difficult year in the reality of human rights violations in Colombia,” according to Berenice Celeita, one of the organization’s founders and president. The association was originally founded as a result of several years of joint work with communities affected by the country’s intensifying social and armed conflict, and of brainstorms about what was best to do in order to defend, promote and protect fundamental rights in Colombia, from an educational, investigative and legal perspective as well as a participatory perspective based on partnerships with the communities.1
The organisation’s history is closely linked to the professional and personal trajectory of Celeita, a forensic anthropologist and human rights defender since the mid-1980s. The president of Nomadesc has been subjected to multiple threats, attacks and persecutions because of her tireless work to find solutions to the Colombian conflict, side by side with the communities that her organization accompanies.2
Celeita explains: “We are one of the countries with the greatest number of displaced people in the world. When we decided to call our organisation ‘Nomadesc’, it was because we thought precisely of compulsory nomadism, of forced displacement. Being a nomad is a transitory state, going from one place to the next, as has happened to all those communities which have been violently displaced from their territories and deprived of what belongs to them. And they’ve been dispossessed because they fight for economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. Nomadesc is the combination of those two words: Nomad and DESC, which in Spanish stands for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.”3
Holistic socio-legal approach
Nomadesc works in an interdisciplinary way in the defence of human rights, combining socio-legal advice to victims of human rights violations, with pedagogical and investigative work and political advocacy. Thanks to the fact that the professionals who are part of the Association have skills in different areas, Nomadesc is able to carry out work in the promotion of human rights in a holistic way.
“Ours is a vision of social humanism. This means that we are thinking about all the facets of defending human rights: not just a judicial approach to a case, not just looking at what is happening in the socio-political context of communities affected by conflict, but taking a holistic view,” Celeita explains. “We could not advance towards resolving conflict without having this perspective.4
Nomadesc carries out its work mainly in southwestern Colombia, in the departments of Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Huila and Nariño, a region that is among the most heavily affected by the social and armed conflict in the country.5 For the organisation, education and research are the main transformational elements of conflict resolution. Among other topics, Nomadesc has carried out studies on the impact of national and international companies on the human rights of the communities living in their areas of operation.
The organisation supports and participates in different roundtables and entities that promote the rights of ethnic and peasant communities. Among others, Nomadesc is active in the People’s Congress (Congreso de los Pueblos). This political and social movement brings together a diversity of sectors and social actors to contribute to “the building of a national proposal for a dignified life with social justice in Colombia”.6 In Celeita’s words: “the Peoples’ Congress emerged as a minga [an indigenous concept in reference to a collective project based on teamwork] of social and community resistance, with the aim of creating a blueprint for an inclusive country based on the legislation of the people and giving voice to the people whose voices have been muted.”
Persecution and justice in the “Operation Dragon” case
One of the most far-reaching cases for Nomadesc has been the support for workers at Sintraemcali, the union of public company workers in the city of Cali. During the time her organisation was dedicated to supporting the union’s claims, Berenice Celeita was the victim of the so-called “Operation Dragon”, in which members of the National Army Brigade III spied on, threatened and persecuted human rights defenders, union leaders and political opponents. This illegal plan, executed with the help of the Police and the former State intelligence service, the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), was allegedly designed to eliminate these people, among whom was Celeita.
According to the report “Defending life. Report to the Truth Commission on patterns of aggression against people who defend Human Rights and the territory in Colombia” (2018)7, Operation Dragon is an emblematic case in the Colombian context. The case exemplifies “the participation of State agents in illegal surveillance operations during the presidency of Uribe Vélez.” Berenice Celeita (who was accompanied by PBI during that time) was followed for over a year and received death threats by phone. As a result, she had to leave the region.
After a long judicial process, on January 22, 2019, the Fourth Specialized Court of Cali sentenced three retired soldiers for the crime of aggravated conspiracy to commit a crime, as part of Operation Dragon.8
La Salvajina: the socio-ecological impacts of a dam
Nomadesc works on different cases related to the implementation of court ruling T462a in the Northern Cauca region. This important decision of the Colombian Constitutional Court, issued in 2014, requests guarantees for the rights of local communities which have been seriously affected by the environmental and human rights impacts of the La Salvajina hydroelectric dam in the Cauca river.9
To date, according to Nomadesc and the communities involved, progress in implementing this judgment has been very slow. So much so, that the case was presented to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (I / A Court HR), with the aim of obtaining a ruling on the alleged non-compliance with the provisions that are incumbent on the Colombian Government in the case.10
The “Jarillón” Plan: an acceptable relocation for inhabitants of the Cauca river bank?
Nomadesc accompanies urban communities which have been have been persecuted and fallen victim to dispossession in the operating areas of large economic projects by national and international companies as well as public-private partnerships between companies and local administrations.
One of the cases that has most moved public opinion in Cali in recent years is that of the “Jarillón” Plan. After the flooding this city suffered in 2010, the Valle del Cauca Government’s Office and the Valle del Cauca Regional Autonomous Corporation (CVC) designed this plan to reduce the flood risk of the Cauca river. At that time, according to official estimates almost nine thousand families lived on the banks of this river.11
Nomadesc supports inhabitants of some sectors that have been prioritized for the implementation of the Jarillón Plan. These are people with few resources and families displaced by the armed conflict, who in principle did not oppose the project, since its implementation promises to reduce the risks of devastating flooding of their properties. What these inhabitants demand from the local administration of Cali is a fair and dignified relocation, that is: according to their lifestyle of small farmer origin, as well as reasonable reparations for the houses, farms and productive lands that they lost as a result of the eviction.12 Over time, these complaints have been joined by multiple claims of injustices committed against these communities by the promoters of the project.
In defence of vulnerable populations in Buenaventura
Nomadesc has been working for the defence of human rights in the port city of Buenaventura since 1999, when the actions of the Calima Block of the paramilitary structure of the Self-Defence Units of Colombia (AUC) began. These actions left a trail of crimes, dispossession, displacement and enforced disappearance from Cali to Buenaventura.
Starting in 2017, when the Civic Strike “To live with dignity and peace in the territory” took place in Buenaventura, Nomadesc accompanied communities and organizations which participated in the demonstrations. For twenty-two days, residents of Buenaventura took to the streets to request access to better living conditions and the fulfilment of their basic rights.13 The organisation supported the Civic Strike Committee which, thanks to the magnitude of the peaceful mobilisation, managed to agree on a series of commitments on the part of the National Government.
As of today, Nomadesc accompanies those involved who demand compliance with these agreements, and assumes legal representation in cases of people who were attacked in the protests by members of the armed forces and police, specifically, the Mobile Riot Squad, ESMAD.14 It also supports leaders of the Cívic Strike who have been subjected to persecution and serious threats because of their legitimate work in defence of the rights of vulnerable populations in the city.15
Peoples’ Intercultural University: towards an integral and participative peace
As part of its education strategy, Nomadesc has promoted and accompanied different educational schemes. In 2015 the Peoples’ Intercultural University was launched, which is “an open-air learning experience” designed to further train human rights defenders who, although they come from different regional and cultural backgrounds within Colombia’s South-West, share similar stories of pain and resistance. This is a University conceived and designed for peasants and indigenous and Afro Colombian communities in rural areas.
Its courses are mobile, taking place outside classrooms and conventional buildings. The education takes place through the so-called territorial tours, where theory and practical implementation come together and different communities exchange knowledge through dialogue.16
Threats and attacks
For their work in defence of human rights, Nomadesc and its members have been subject to many security incidents over the years. The threats against her life as part of the persecution and extermination plan “Operation Dragon” forced the organisation’s president Berenice Celeita, to abandon the region for a time.
At this moment, the organisation works on different cases in which it legally represents victims, and public hearings are taking place, or in some cases, are about to take place. Because of this, the level of risk to which the Nomadesc members who handle these processes are exposed is rising. In 2019 they have suffered several security incidents, such as illegal followings by unidentified persons and threats, which according to the organisation are most likely related to these legal cases. Nomadesc predicted that in the course of 2020 the risks would intensify considerably.17
On 25 May 2001, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary protective measures to Berenice Celeita for being one of the targets of “Operation Dragon”. The IACHR requested that the State urgently adopt the necessary measures to guarantee Celeita’s life and personal integrity.18
Prizes and Recognition
In 1998, Berenice Celeita received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award19 for her impact on social change.
Nomadesc received an honourable mention from the French Republic’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CncDH) in 201520, for her work in defence of human rights and the environment.
We have accompanied Nomadesc since 2011, and its president Berenice Celeita since 1999.